The City at Peace youth development program in Washington, DC, introduced Jessica Valoris to art as a catalyst for collective healing in her high school years. “It was the first time I experienced art as a way that I could connect. Where I could experience my own emotions and also experience compassion and empathy with other people,” said Valoris.
The program seeks to provide a safe, collaborative, and nurturing space for young folks to examine systems of oppression. “It totally changed the trajectory of my life. Being in spaces with other young folks who were exploring these things and developing a language to make sense of all of the violences that we were experiencing.” For Valoris, this made her approach to her artistry focused on the collective and community from the get go.
As the protests and uprisings ensued with the police murder of George Floyd, Valoris became deeply immersed in the study of Black fugitivity and marronage, the process of extricating oneself from slavery. She dedicated all of her media consumption to learning about these histories, from watching documentaries to making playlists and listening to oral histories.
“There was this extra push that felt like as the world was talking about abolition, I really wanted to root it in the experiences of our ancestors and the fugitive ancestors that made abolition possible,” said Valoris. “What are the practices they created and innovated that we can learn from now in this moment?”
Her piece in the show, still: a rival geography, pays homage to her Black and Jewish ancestry through ritual practice. The video, which was shot on an iPhone and edited in iMovie, was the result of her participation in a collaborative commission called black/water facilitated by Ebony Noelle Golden. The project tasked artists with exploring the relationship between Blackness and water. For her, this became a way to link what once felt like disparate parts of her identity—her Blackness and Jewishness.
While exploring her histories, she began to consider Jewish ritual around water, which is evident in the beginning of still: a rival geography. “When you wake up you’re supposed to wash your hands and say a blessing over it. It’s basically just understanding that everything you touch, everything that touches you is sacred,” Valoris said.
The video progresses to the practice of the creation of a sacred circle which is present in many different traditions, including ancient Judaic processes. She writes names inside an incantation bowl, a practice traditionally completed by burying the bowl under one’s home once the names of their ancestors are listed to protect one’s family.
All of these rituals are tied to her ancestral lineage, but it’s the soundscape that seems to unite the piece, tying the rituals together. The emphasis on stillness emerged from a trip she took to South Carolina to visit her elders. Upon her arrival she threw out her back, finding herself unable to move, forced to be still.
As she spoke with water doulas who were a part of the larger black/water project, she was advised to listen to her body and consider what it was asking her to do. Stillness was the answer. Searching for stillness in the midst of the particular chaos of the past couple of years brought on by the pandemic and heightened racial tensions is perhaps a decision to preserve and to care for oneself and others.